On Sukkot, we remember the fragility of our own security. We make a special point to invite guests into our home, and this applies not only on the individual but also on the communal level.
Sukkot’s Call for Audacious Hospitality
Sukkot is all about welcoming.
Okay, it’s also about harvest. And water. And God.
But it’s also about welcoming.
In the traditional celebration of Sukkot, we build booths outside our house, usually with part of a wall missing, so that anyone who’s walking by can make themselves at home. We eat outside in the sukkah in full view of our neighbors, and we’re encouraged to share this mitzvah with family and friends. The sukkot we build represent our ancestors’ wandering through the desert, teaching us to be grateful for the reliable shelter most of us enjoy and reminding us that no everyone is so blessed. Each of these practices revolves around the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests, focusing our attention especially on those we often ignore.
Jewish tradition is very clear about our obligation to dedicate our festive rejoicing to those who are in need.
One place we find this message is in the Zohar, the primary text of Kabbalah. There we learn about the well-known Sukkot practice of welcoming ushpizin. The mystics teach us that as we dwell in our booths on Sukkot, we invite the most prominent of our ancestors in as our ushpizin, which is Aramaic for “guests.” Seven heroes join us—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David—one for each of the seven days of Sukkot. Modern practice extends the invitation to women as well—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Hannah, and Deborah, for example. These are the אוּשְׁפִּיזִין אִלָּעִין קַדִּישִׁין, the “exalted holy guests,” from whom we seek guidance and inspiration.
Those who teach about the ushpizin—myself included—often end there, highlighting our noble effort to welcome and honor those we most admire. But there’s more to the story. The Zohar goes on to say that when Abraham and Sarah and all the rest arrive at our sukkah, they’re not going to be satisfied unless they see other guests as well. The Zohar warns us that our ancestors want to see that we’ve included those who are often left out.
It’s easy to welcome the people we respect, to invite in those whose company we enjoy. It’s much harder to be welcoming to those who make us uncomfortable – but that’s exactly what our tradition expects of us.
This is the difficult task—sometimes uncomfortable but always holy—recently championed by the Union for Reform Judaism. Our movement calls it “audacious hospitality,” and it was the major focus of our last Biennial convention in 2013. Audacious hospitality calls us to bring closer to the center of our community those who currently are on the outside. This will look different from person to person and from synagogue to synagogue, but we can learn a lot from others who have traveled down this path with us.
I’d like to tell you the story of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis, MN. As I do, think about what you would do in their situation. And think about what you’d like B’nai Jehudah to do. I’ll invite you to share some thoughts in a few minutes.
A couple years ago, Shir Tikvah adopted audacious hospitality as a primary guiding value, and almost immediately, they faced a serious test of conviction. A man named Mark began to frequent services and adult education classes. Mark was homeless, and he “looked the part.” He struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, and his social graces often made congregants feel weird or even offended. Mark had never come around before, and now, suddenly, he was a regular fixture.
Clearly, the congregation concluded, Mark needs a community, our community. And if we’re committed to audacious hospitality, we cannot simply relegate him to the periphery. So synagogue members and temple staff made a commitment to welcoming Mark in. Individuals volunteered to accompany him at services and classes, helping him to navigate social situations. Mark, for his part, agreed to abide by certain rules of behavior. Many people remained uncomfortable, but the message from the community has been clear: Mark is welcome here. In the words of Shir Tikvah’s rabbi, Michael Adam Latz, “Mark is a real live human being to [our congregation], in so many ways like the rest of us: hungry for community, awkward in social situations, yearning for a purpose.”
So: What would you do in this situation? And what would you want B’nai Jehudah to do?
It wasn’t easy, but Shir Tikvah successfully—and audaciously—welcomed Mark into their core when many other synagogues would quickly have called the police.
Sukkot offers us a powerful challenge: Do you prefer to be comfortable – or welcoming? Do you fill your bellies while your spirit remains hungry? When you invite the patriarchs and matriarchs into your sukkah, who else will be there to share a meal with them?
Each of us will feel differently about who is on the margins, about who counts as an “insider” and who is an “outsider.”
We are made uncomfortable by those with more money – or by those with less.
We can’t understand people of a different sexual orientation – or we can’t tolerate those who express intolerance.
We fear the influence of mental illness or the discomfort of physical disability.
We question the sincerity of non-Jews or converts in our community.
We distrust those with authority.
“Our” community exists should focus on the baby boomers – or the millennials – or their children.
Those who are “too religious” make us feel inadequate, or we dismiss as shallow those who lack our own spiritual depth.
We’re nervous around people who have been here for generations, or we ignore those who have arrived only recently.
The list goes on and on.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Reform Movement, summarizes our task: “Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so that people don’t feel left out; it’s an ongoing invitation to be part of a community where we can become all that God wants us to be.” In other words, we can’t be our full selves if we cordon ourselves off from those who make us uncomfortable. We can be a group of folks that gathers together – or we can be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.
The spirit of Sukkot confronts each of us with some hard questions: Who do we keep at a distance, intentionally or unintentionally? Who do we pretend not to see because they make us uncomfortable? Who remains on the outside simply because we haven’t thought to include them or because we don’t yet know how to include them?
As our holiday comes to an end we make our way into 5776, let us consider how we answer these questions for ourselves and how we expect our congregation to respond as well. Each Shabbat, we petition God: וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶךָ, “Spread over us the sukkah of your peace.” This Sukkot, let us expand what we mean by “us.” Let us challenge ourselves to identify the ushpizin to whom we can resolve to reach out in the coming year. Let us magnify our community—and transform ourselves—by opening our hearts to all who surround us, welcoming them into our own sukkah of peace.
 See Zohar Emor 103a. Translation from Succos, of the Artscroll Mesorah Series (p. 53-54), modified slightly:
“If one sits in the shadow of faith [that is, in the sukkah] and invites those [spiritual] guests but does not give [the vulnerable] their portion, they all hold aloof from him. … One should not say, ‘I will first satisfy myself with food and drink, and what is left I shall give to the [needy].’ Rather, the first of everything must be for one’s guests. If one gladdens his guests and satisfies them, God rejoices over him. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the other righteous [guests] shower him with propitious verses.”
 They called it “radical hospitality.”
 Private communication, Oct. 1, 2015.
 “The Genesis of Our Future”: http://urj.org/about/union/leadership/rabbijacobs/?syspage=article&item_id=109240
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”